Many happy (tax) returns: Penn State assistance program prepping for season

Amy Duke
November 26, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — November ushers in the holiday season, a time for making lists and checking them twice. Cathy Bowen is preparing too, but the season she is planning for does not evoke visions of sugar plum fairies, eggnog by the fire, or sleigh rides. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"Tax season is a time nearly everyone dreads," said the professor of agricultural and extension education and consumer issues in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "But, it is especially worrisome for those who don't have the resources to seek professional guidance."

To help those individuals and families, Bowen established Penn State's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, an Internal Revenue Service-sponsored initiative. Approaching its 15th year, the initiative, which is currently housed in the college's Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education at the University Park campus, provides free tax preparation and electronic filing services to income-eligible taxpayers, including Penn State students, staff and retirees.

Taxpayers also receive financial coaching on accessing free credit reports, information about community and government resources available to assist families, and adjusting W-4 withholdings. The goal, Bowen said, is to improve financial literacy so taxpayers have more control over their finances and the confidence to prepare their own returns at some point.

"Being able to complete a basic tax return is a life skill," she said. "We include our clients in the process so that they can learn. We use two computer monitors so they can see the entries in their return as they are being made.”

In the program's infancy, Bowen was the sole tax preparer, serving about 20 clients each year in Centre County. Fast forward to the 2017 filing season, when 40 volunteers prepared a total of 740 returns, representing nearly $950,000 in economic impact.

"The program has grown because there is a great need and because we have established confidence, trust and continuity for the people we have served," said Bowen, who cited another feather in the program's cap — Penn State VITA was the first electronic filing site in Centre County.

VITA two

Cathy Bowen, professor of agricultural and extension education and consumer issues, left, assists VITA student volunteer Jacob Jillson as he prepares a return for a client.

IMAGE: Penn State

Confidence in the program is what has kept Carol Spangler, a Penn State retiree, returning to the program for years.

"Cathy and the students do a fantastic job, and the program is run very well," she said. "It's an important service, especially for students and people who are living on a fixed income."

The team Bowen assembled has evolved into a student-run club made up of students from Penn State Law and the Smeal College of Business. All new and returning volunteers are required to participate in tax-preparation training in the fall semester and must pass an IRS certification exam before they can prepare returns. A pivotal part of the instruction focuses on customer service.

"Our volunteers must uphold confidentiality," Bowen said. "Above all, they are to treat people with respect."

The volunteers' professionalism is appreciated by Bonnie Shaffer, a client and Penn State employee.

"I have been a VITA client since its beginning," she said. "It's a valuable program and the people are wonderful, which to me is important. I have lived all over the country, and what I value most is being around people who are pleasant."

Bowen said students benefit from the experience of helping others while learning important financial literacy and work skills that can prepare them for their future careers. One of the many volunteers who was enriched by the experience is Curtis Adam, a 2012 accounting graduate, now a senior tax associate at Aronson LLC in Rockville, Maryland.

"I was a little hesitant at first with all of the study materials, but I ended up returning for a second year and loved serving clients and receiving the warm smiles from them," he said. "It is a really good program that shows the client-service aspect of public accounting."

He hopes the program continues because it is a "total win" for both sides.

"The big takeaway that applies to my generation is we want everything to have meaning and purpose," he said. "The VITA program captures this mindset. The students learn real-world experience and the community benefits from the service that is offered."

Gabe Caceres, who earned a bachelor's degree in accounting in 2016 and is now a nonprofit tax accountant with Gelman, Rosenberg and Freedman, of Bethesda, Maryland, agreed.

"My experience at Penn State VITA was priceless," he said. "Not only was I giving back to the community, but I was furthering my education in my chosen profession. The experience helped me realize that accountants do more than just crunch the numbers — we help people. This wasn't some test we were studying for; it was the real world."

Bowen is counting on future volunteers and the Smeal College of Business to carry the mantle as she will retire in spring 2019 — after tax season, of course — a transition that will be bittersweet for the educator who has devoted her 30-year career to helping people with financial issues including budgeting, credit, record-keeping, and consumer rights and responsibilities.

"I have been privileged to have played a role in educating students and consumers on how to be good stewards of their financial resources," Bowen said. "I am especially proud of the impact that VITA has had. To me, this is a perfect example of what the land-grant mission should be about — bringing educators and students together to help the public."

More information about Penn State VITA is available online at http://www.psuvita.org.

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Last Updated November 28, 2018